New Urbanism Comes to an Old Downtown

Once again, John Sarvay, author of the Buttermilk and Molasses blog, has demonstrated that he is a “must read” for land use issues in the Richmond region. In his latest post, he sets the scene for the update of the city’s Downtown Master Plan, with particular attention to the urban design firm, Dover Kohl & Partners, that will lead the effort.

One of the most important decisions in updating the Master Plan is deciding which firm to engage to run the charrette. Very appropriately, in a recent post, “The Downtown Master Plan Revisited: Part One: Huh?”, Sarvay asks, just who is Dover Kohl & Partners?

Dover Kohl, though based in Florida, has Virginia roots: The principals graduated from Virginia Tech. Then they studied under New Urbanism gurus Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk at the University of Miami. Among many projects, they have worked with the City of Fairfax on a master plan to re-develop Fairfax Boulevard (Rt. 50).

To get a flavor of the kind of thinking that Dover Kohl might apply to downtown Richmond, I refer you to the article by the Fairfax Times about the Rt. 50 plan. The vision there is to transform the suburban arterial into “a tree-lined, multi-lane roadway.” Three major nodes along the boulevard would offer a classic New Urbanist mix of residential, commercial and retail. The plan would give special emphasis to walkability.

The challenges for the City of Richmond are very different. The “old” urbanism of Downtown already provides high densities, minimal setbacks, a gridded street pattern and highly walkable streetscapes. The only obvious challenge that strikes me is figuring out how to accelerate the revival of downtown residential.

The City of Richmond and its civic boosters have fallen prey in the past to the allure of the “mega project” that will magically stimulate downtown revival. The 6th Street Marketplace, the Convention Center and the Performing Arts Center are the most notable fiascos, although there have been others. The good news about Dover Kohl, suggests Sarvay based on his Internet readings, is that New Urbanists like Dover Kohl appear to be nudging the market away from mega-projects. Their goal, if I might interject an editorial observation, is to create a zoning and conceptual framework that enables market forces to engage in smaller-scale projects that function effectively together, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

My sense is that dowtown Richmond actually works remarkably well and, left to its own devices, will flourish. The most important thing is not to screw things up, and not to induce the community into backing more foolish projects. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to attend the Downtown Master Plan charrette. If Sarvay does, I will relay his observations to you.

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11 responses to “New Urbanism Comes to an Old Downtown”

  1. The Richmond Democrat Avatar
    The Richmond Democrat

    Great post Jim. I would just chime in with the observation that one thing has consistently proved to be successful in downtown Richmond: quality housing aimed at young professionals.

    Tobacco Row and other developments like it are responsible for most of the positive growth we see in downtown Richmond.

    You are absolutely correct that mega-projects like Main Street Station and Six Street Marketplace were ill-considered.

    Richmond should continue to provide tax credits to encourage the rehab and redevelopment of older neighborhoods. Clean, safe comfortable neighborhoods will enure Richmond’s survival; a lack of the same will prove its demise.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    Is there a pattern?

    In my opinion –

    Residential development in Detroit seems like a disaster. Chicago has great neighborhoods in the city. Washington, DC is largely a residential wasteland, Baltimore is working pretty well.

    Why can some cities revitalize while others seem to find it impossible?

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, I’m surprised to hear you say that Washington, D.C., is a “residential wasteland.” As someone who grew up there and witnessed the destruction of the Martin Luther King riots, I am continually struck by the massive gentrification and re-development that has occurred since then. In 40 years, large swaths of the city have been transformed. Perhaps you are alluding to something that I have missed.

    As to your question, why do some cities revitalize while others don’t? Washington has one huge advantage: the presence of the federal government and the massive amount of money it pumps into the local economy. Washington, D.C., also has the highest per capita incomes of any “state” in the country. That certainly helps. I would suppose also that the passing of the incompetent and corrupt Marion Berry regime made a huge difference in building confidence among those who would invest their capital in the city.

    I would point to a number of variables that might explain your question:

    – Strength of the regional economy
    – Presence of anchor institutions such as universities, cultural centers
    – Level of taxes and regulation in the “city” jurisdiction (the less, the better)
    – Avoidance of “urban renewal” projects that destroyed cohesive neighborhoods
    – Quailty of race relations
    – Crime rates

  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim the reason Groveton is at sea is simple:

    He is mixed up by his own use of the word “city.”

    One has to deal with New Urban Regions (NUR)- what every you call them – and with the organic components of NURs -what ever you call them.

    The municipality that is The City of Chicago is large (3 mil pn / 145k acres), diverse and dominant in its NUR which is the third largest in the US of A.

    The municipality that is the City of Detroit has one third the population, half the size and has been gutted by Regional decisions and internal fighting.

    The City of Baltimore (700 k pn / 51 k acres) and the Federal District of Columnbia (600 k pn / 40 k acres) are both much smaller and play far different roles in the same NUR which is the fourth largest in the US of A.

    Apples and qumquats again.

    To call the Federal Distict is a “city” is a stretch. It does not have the same powers that most municiplaities called “City of ____” have.


    What you see is what has happened at the Beta Neighborhood and Beta Village scales.

    The Federal Distirct includes all or parts of three, four, of five Beta Communities, depending on how the bourndaries are drawn.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I was looking around for info about MSAs and found this:

    “As of June 2003, there is now an additional classification, that of a “Metropolitan Division.” The term metropolitan division is used to refer to a county or group of closely-tied contiguous counties that serve as a distinct employment region within a metropolitan statistical area that has a population core of at least 2.5 million. While a metropolitan division is a subdivision of a larger metropolitan statistical area, it often functions as a distinct social, economic, and cultural area within the larger region.”

    Then they do this:
    MSA – Washington–Arlington–
    Alexandria DC–VA–MD–WV 5,290,400

    Metro Divisions:
    Bethesda–Frederick–Gaithersburg MD 1,155,069
    Washington–Arlington–Alexandria DC–MD–VA–WV 4,135,331

    so .. again we have ….

    “…a county or group of closely-tied contiguous counties that serve as a distinct employment region within a MSA”

    so I find this interesting.. because they are making a connection between employment and adjacent/contiguous counties – which I presume are residential and that the METRO sub areas are, in fact, mini-commuting areas within the bigger MSA.

    They sound… sort similiar to New Urban Regions.. no?

    if not.. how would they compare and contrast?

    what would a Metro Division have to do – to be classified as a NUR?

  6. Glenn Weiss Avatar
    Glenn Weiss

    As a planner and writer in South Florida, be careful with New Urbanism. The new Urbanist can produce good new suburban villages for the upper middle class, but have not proven their case in existing urban environments.

    Watch for the following:
    1. Inabilty to modify design concepts to respond to unique and personal attributes of lower income people living in a community.
    2. Difficulty to respond to cultural diversity. They believe good design (their good design) can be inhabited by anyone.
    3. Failure to force a community to recognize that they need additional public space and semi-public spaces with the higher densities.
    4. Be sure to evaluate new urbanist proposal against existing relationship of exterior green space to asphlat. In general the new urbanist in existing cities replace green with building and asphlat.

    If you visit my picasa site you can see Florida New Urbanism.

    Good Luck.

    PS. I am writing because Richmond is on my list of possible cities to settle into in 2009.

  7. Groveton Avatar


    DC is better than it was. That’s for sure. However, it still lacks the strength of neighborhood that a city (sorry EMR) like Baltimore seems to have. There are also vast areas of DC that are challenged in regard to unemployment, crime and general hopelessness.

    Certainly Chicago has a more developed and livable set of neighborhoods than Los Angles. SanFrancisco, on the other hand, has great neighborhoods and is very livable.

    We can argue about the definition of city if we want. However, I took the meaning of your post and related article to refer to the city of Richmond, VA as legally and politically defined.

    So, here is a restatement of your views as to what makes one city “tick” while another does not:

    – Strength of the regional economy
    – Presence of anchor institutions such as universities, cultural centers
    – Level of taxes and regulation in the “city” jurisdiction (the less, the better)
    – Avoidance of “urban renewal” projects that destroyed cohesive neighborhoods
    – Quailty of race relations
    – Crime rates

    How does Richmond stack up on this list?

    For the sake of starting a discussion, I’ll provide my own (admittedly distant) guesses.

    1. Regional economy: C+
    2. Presense of anchor institutions: C
    3. Level of taxes and regulation: C
    4. Avoidance of urban renewal: D
    5. Quality of race relations: B-
    6. Crime rate: C

    I’d be very interested in your views on Richmond. I’d also be interested in you views on the sasme set of criteria for Fairfax County (or Northern Virginia).

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Glenn Weiss, Thanks for your observations. The sad thing about Virginia is that the level of practice in the realm of land use and urban planning is so empoverished that New Urbanism represents one of the few coherent and credible alternatives to traditional “suburban sprawl” (scattered, disconnected, low-density development.) It is only within the past few years that local developers, at least in the Richmond region, have been touting New Urbanism as an antidote to what preceded it.

    There are a lot of pseudo-New Urbanism projects that adopt some elements of the philosophy but omit others. These guys may well give New Urbanism a bad name. Also, there are other projects that might work well elsewhere, but are in the wrong locations — typically, on the urban periphery, where they may contribute to dysfunctional transportation patterns.

    I can’t think of any genuine New Urbanism projects that have been around long enough here in Virginia to evaluate whether or not they live up to their promise. New Urbanism is the “new frontier” of development practice in Virginia. Outside of this blog, it represents the only philosophical alternative to Business As Usual development.

    P.S. I enjoyed poking through your Picasa photos, but it would have been nice to have some kind of written commentary to go along with them. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the images you presented.

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, As a Richmond resident, I would give our region higher marks than you did. The regional economy is pretty strong — not a
    “boom town” economy but diversified, resilient and growing. I’d give it a B.

    The city of Richmond has tremendous anchor institutions — Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University, the Virginia Museum, the Science Museum and a number of historical museums, as well as cultural instituation like the Ballet. It’s not Washington, D.C, but I’d give it a good, strong B.

    Taxes and regulations — yeah, the City has a pretty bad rep. Taxes are higher than the surrounding jurisdictions, government is more bloated and regulations are a big problem for developers. I’d give it a C.

    Avoidance of Urban Renewal. I’d give it a B+. Richmond never went for urban renewal in a big way. There is a tremendous wealth of older buildings. One of the city’s great strengths is its strong, distinctive neighborhoods.

    I’d agree with you on race relations. Despite a number of high-profile incidents that made it into the national news, there is relatively little friction between the races. There is a lot of ernest effort to build bridges to, and create opportunities for, minorities. B- is fair.

    Crime rate. C would have been fair a couple of years ago, but murder rates and other violent crime rates are plummeting. I’d say the city has increased to a C+ and could be headed to a B- with another couple years’ improvement.

  10. Groveton Avatar


    Thanks for the response. Interesting grades. Sounds like the City of Richmond is poised to succeed.

    It’s still interesting to me that the median household median income for the City of Richmond is $31,121 while it is $49,185 in Henrico.

    I guess that’s just the way things go with cities and their suburbs.

    Also, given your grades, you might request a change in the Wikipedia entry for Richmond:

    The Greater Richmond area, itself, can be dangerous to visitors, and localers. Richmond ranks as one of the top ten most dangerous cities. Local residents console themselves that most violence is drug-related.

    I am sure that your perspective is accurate so maybe Wikipedia needs to be updated.

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Wikipedia definitely needs updating — the declining crime rate has been big news in the Times-Dispatch recently.

    As for the average household income, that’s a bit deceptive. Of course, there is a concentration of poverty in Richmond, but that’s not the whole story. There is a disproportionate number of young, single professionals living in the city. Their “household” incomes are lower than the household incomes in the ‘burbs. If you check the “per capital” income, I think you’d find that the disparity is not nearly so grave.

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